Corporate + Startup Partnerships: What Startups Need to Know

Tips for Startups

At Greentown Labs, we have the privilege of working with our corporate partners and startups within our Greentown Launch program to forge corporate partnerships. Our Senior Director of Strategic Partnerships, Katie MacDonald, has compiled a few lessons for startups pursuing corporate partnerships. Here they are in ‘Part 2’ of our two-part blog series focused on how to forge  corporate + startup partnerships.

Listen. Then listen harder.

You’re probably not an expert active listener. If you read that and thought ‘Hey! I sure am!’ then you may have missed the point. Human’s don’t stop learning how to listen and ask questions. If you’ve chosen to start a business, asking questions and listening thoughtfully will be your biggest task. While the immediacy, urgency and overall panic inherent to your day-to-day activities may obstruct your ability to listen, working on listening will be KEY to working productively with a corporate partner. Listen to your internal point of contact. Listen to their boss. Ask them who else you can listen to internally to fill out your picture of their organizational priorities. If they don’t explain the above features of their business, ASK them to explain. If they tell you they believe you have A, B, C options, explore A, B, C and ask about X, Y, Z. Don’t stop asking or listening.

Know your BIC

You could make someone very successful other than yourself and your co-founder. On the road to corporate partnership, that person is your ‘bad-ass internal champion’ (BIC) within your corporate of choice. Yes they may drag you through ‘hell’, ask you to produce a seemingly limitless set of documents, ask you to demo your product hundreds of times and it may sometimes feel like they are leading you down a trail with no end, BUT if they are still talking to you and are demonstrably going to bat for you within their organization, it is CRITICAL that you spend a healthy portion of your time thinking about how to make them successful. THEM personally. Systems are complicated but people are simple. They don’t go out on a limb for people they don’t like and I mean – LIKE personally. They also don’t pursue difficult tasks in business unless those tasks offer a demonstrable opportunity for them to achieve success. Find out what drives your BIC and show them that while they are slicing through red tape for you, you’re doing your best to be worthy of the opportunities they are fetching.

Articulate what you want. Be ready to compromise.

Many times, I’ve sat in meeting three or four of a corporate and startup engagement and watched as the corporate asked the startup ‘what do YOU really want out of this partnership?’ and watched the founding team on the other side of the table look at each other in panic. YES corporate innovation teams often have a vision of what partnership success could look like with your firm. IF they don’t, or you pursued one option with them and it didn’t work out, be ready to articulate what success looks like for you. In the event you’re asked (and you should always expect this question), you have been given an invitation to steer the conversation. Don’t pass this up. Brainstorm with your team in advance of these meetings and make an exhaustive list (based on the toolkit info in Part 1 of this series) of all the outcomes that might be possible for your team. You may not end up with EXACTLY what you wanted. Welcome to entrepreneurship. We supply free beer at Greentown Labs for a reason. Dust yourself off and provide them with the next best solution OR know the conditions under which you would walk and define these with your team before making any brash decisions.

Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

Disrupting an economy of scale somewhere in a complex supply chain? Congratulations – this means you will have multiple corporate prospects for partnership. So you found one. You like each other. Excellent. Don’t stop looking. Unfortunately, the overused hyperbole about dating culture mirroring corporate startups partnerships isn’t that far off base. Until you’re ‘taken’ in the corporate partnership world, you are still single. Corporations are inherently risk averse animals. That means this ‘thing’ is probably not to work in the long term. For that reason alone, you want to keep your options open. It is also for that reason that you want to create interest and FOMO (fear of missing out) from other corporates. Qualified interest in your venture from outside parties may be exactly what you need to prove yourself with your primary corporate partner. Even better, you could end up with multiple partnerships with multiple entities and further de-risk your operation and accelerate your path to market.

Understand your customer, and their customer.

At the end of the day, a corporation is a business that has figured out how to do something very successfully for a single type of and/or diverse set of customers. So why innovate if things are working pretty darn well? Capitalism is king and growth is oxygen for capitalism. Growth in the corporate context implies selling a) more products to existing customers, b) selling to more customers and/or c) doing both. In whatever growth context a corporation finds itself, it’s important to deeply understand who they make their money from and what those entities want. Startups have a unique opportunity to identify those future end users of technology and extract critical insight from them about their pain points and what they are willing to pay for. This insight can accelerate corporate partnership, supply your startup and corporate partners with invaluable insight and solidify your ‘strategic fit’ with the corporate partner. Alternatively, lack of understanding about the context about the eventual end user of your product can be the nail in the coffin of a potentially viable partnership.


We know developing mutually beneficial partnerships between corporates + startups is incredibly challenging and the Greentown Labs team is on a mission to help facilitate these connections and conversations. We encourage you to attend one of our upcoming events to chat with our team, our startups, and many of our corporate partners. If you’re curious to learn more about membership, please contact us, and if you’d like to learn more about our Launch Programs, contact us here.